Why do some people have nice singing voices and others have awful ones?

Stan Megraw
23 January 2012

Cass- Grade 9 - Kenora, Ontario

"You are the worst singer I've ever heard in my life." - Simon Cowell, American Idol

Unlike the thousands of contestants who try out for American or Canadian Idol, there are many people who are embarrassed to sing in public. It may be Happy Birthday at a party, the National Anthem before a sports event, or a hymn during a church service. For the majority, it's not that they don't like to sing; they just don't think their voice is good enough for singing.

Why is it that some people can sing like a choir of angels, while others sound like a bunch of brawling alley cats?

Tone-deaf vs "amusia"

Some people can neither produce (sing) nor perceive (hear) musical notes, even though they are perfectly capable of speaking and distinguishing verbal sounds. For the very few who have this condition, they are said to have congenital amusia.

On the other hand, despite what the word may suggest, most "tone-deaf" people can in fact hear music perfectly well... they just can't sing. The inability of this group to sing can be traced to the physical makeup of their vocal system (vocal motor amusia). And it all begins with how we produce a sound.

Did You Know? It was once illegal to sing out of tune in North Carolina.

How vocal sound is made

Sound is simply waves of pressure traveling through the air. Whether we're speaking or singing, we generate sound the same way: by the vibration of vocal folds located in the larynx (or Adam's Apple) of the throat. Vocal folds, better known as vocal chords, are like a pair of lips in the larynx that open and shut as we breathe.

Did You Know? The vibration of the vocal folds is based on the Bernoulli Principle... the faster a fluid (liquid or gas) moves, the lower the pressure it creates.

When a singer exhales (breathes out), a burst of air rushes over the vocal folds causing the pressure behind them to decrease. As a result, the vocal folds close. Then pressure builds up behind the folds and they open up again. This process (open, close, open...) repeats itself many times, resulting in a "buzzing" sound. You can hear this effect by slowly pronouncing the vowels "a - e - i - o - u".

I don't know of anyone who has gone on to a successful singing career simply because they have a "beautiful buzz". So obviously the sound needs to be shaped and transformed, much the same way a sculptor molds a lump of clay.

Transforming sound into song

Sound waves produced by the vibrating vocal chords have two key characteristics:

  • a frequency - the distance between 2 consecutive waves
  • an amplitude - the height of the waves

The frequency influences the pitch (highness or lowness) of sound. For example, a low A sung by a bass vocalist vibrates at a frequency of 55 times/sec (or 55 Hertz) - the sound waves are far apart. For a soprano singing a high C, the waves are much closer together (frequency of 1047 Hertz).

A singer can control the pitch of their voice by using muscles in the larynx to change the elasticity and tension of the vocal folds. Let's do a simple demonstration. While humming "EH", try to yawn. Did you notice that the sound got "deeper" as your throat muscles contracted?

A singer can also lower the frequency (pitch) of their voice by rounding their lips. This time, hum "UH" while gradually covering you mouth with your hand.

The other component of sound waves, amplitude, affects the volume (loudness) of a voice; the higher the amplitude, the higher the loudness. This can be controlled by the amount of air forced out of the lungs... compare the amount of air that is exhaled when you whisper and when you scream.

Did You Know? If you yelled for 8 years, 7 months and 6 days, you would have produced enough sound wave energy to heat one cup of coffee

So what's the difference between a good singer and a bad one? Quite simply it's how well they can simultaneously adjust the pitch and volume of sound into a melodious song. And to a large extent, this involves having skillful control of muscles in the abdomen, chest, throat and face... which takes lots of practice. So, if you are someone who wishes they were a better singer, don't be discouraged... with a lot of practice and some good coaching, you too could find yourself on Canadian Idol!

Quotes from past winners of Canadian Idol

"I'm used to singing in front of audiences. I've been singing with my dad for 12 years and he's been preparing me for this." Ryan Malcolm -2003

"I could not be the singer I am today without my mom dragging me to music lessons and making me practice. She always said I would thank her one day and she was right!" Kalan Porter - 2004

"I have been fortunate enough to have awesome experiences with my teachers. They have all been so supportive and helped me grow as both a singer and a performer." Melissa O'Neil - 2005

Article first published in 2006

Stan Megraw

Stan is a writer/researcher, a PhD graduate of McGill University and was a member of the CurioCity team for several years. As a kid he dreamed of playing hockey in the NHL then becoming an astronaut with NASA. Instead, he ended up as an environmental research scientist. In his spare time Stan enjoys working on DIY projects, cooking and exploring his Irish roots.


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Comments

Avatar  tony

it doesnt escape my notice the writer totally didnt even answer the question correctly and started talking about control of voice. no...that wasnt what was asked. the question was, why do some people have nice sounding voices and others dont. I suspect it has something to do with the voice box somehow....its configuration in the throat...its kinda like how some people have nice speaking voices and others sound unlikeable somehow. I think its just the luck of the drawl. some people have good sontrol over their voices....yet still dont sound like george michael.

Avatar  Salvador

Hello sir, I don't know if you monitor this board, but I came across this site because this question has been in the back of my mind for awhile. The question is : Do singers/impersonators do what they do because their vocal chords are physically different, is it because they can just naturally use them better than everyone else, but otherwise they are not different?